Melbourne cemetery – Elvis and billiards

So we left the strange lonely wastes of Royal Park, crossed Royal Parade and headed along College Crescent. To the right were the residential colleges of Melbourne University, but we took a left and walked into the Melbourne General Cemetery on Princes Hill, its entrance marked with Gothic lettering.

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One of the first things you encounter is the Prime Ministers’ Garden, where the political leaders of Australia – alive and dead – are commemorated. Among the memorials is one for Harold Holt, who drowned in the surf in 1967 (or, if you prefer, was taken by a shark/aliens/the Chinese/the CIA). His headstone bears the defiant inscription ‘He loved the sea’. I suppose they couldn’t really use his supposed last words ‘Prime ministers don’t drown’.

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Obviously, Holt isn’t actually buried there. Menzies and Gorton are, but aside from them the Prime Ministers’ garden is generally unpopulated by prime ministerial bones. At the end of the Garden is a marble wall on which are inscribed the names of all who have served in that role, up to the present incumbent. It doesn’t matter whether you were PM for decades, like Robert Menzies, or for as short a period as Earle Christmas Grafton Page, who earned himself a place in trivia history by serving for 20 days in 1939 – you still get your name on that gleaming marble memorial.

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It’s poignant to see the names of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, the two old lions who recently died within a few months of each other, their death dates newly gilded (though they’re not here either).

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But perhaps Fraser would have been happier with this more unconventional memorial, the wonderful mural portrait recently painted on the wall of the Asylum Seekers’ Resource Centre in Footscray. The painting honours Fraser’s commitment to multiculturalism and support for refugees.

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Melbourne’s multicultural history goes back many years – as the names on the graves make clear.

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I must admit that when it comes to truly impressive memorials, the Italians know how to do it. These stylish graves are like marble hotels for the deceased.

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There aren’t a lot of notable people buried here. Walk round a cemetery in, say, Paris and every second tombstone is  a famous writer, artist or singer. This cemetery is basically a resting place for ordinary citizens, although the cemetery’s website does its best, talking up ‘notable interments’ such as Burke and Wills (who seem to be commemorated everywhere, this is the third time I’ve encountered them in the last few weeks) and a member of Men At Work. It’s hard to know much about most of the interred, as few occupations are listed. I noticed a mariner, a matron, and even a Japanese importer (Teiji Akiyama, who died in Melbourne in 1884). Otherwise the headstones provide little information about their occupants.

But there’s no doubt about the occupation of the person commemorated here:

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Walter Lindrum is probably the closest thing to a celebrity to be buried in this cemetery and he also has the quirkiest grave. It is in the shape of a billiard table, complete with cue, balls, pockets, and coins along the side. Lindrum was no ordinary player: he was the best in the world from 1933 to 1950, when he retired undefeated.

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Walter Lindrum in action in 1925

If you had a turn of mind like one of the great horror story writers, you might imagine getting lost in the cemetery on a dark night, hearing the click of balls, and seeing ghostly figures gathering for a game on Lindrum’s tomb. But on a bright sunny day, it’s merely quirky.

While Lindrum’s grave is said to be the most popular in the cemetery, it’s not the most bizarre memorial. That honour belongs to a large tribute to … Elvis.

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Of course, Elvis isn’t buried here either. He never set foot in Australia, let alone Melbourne – though apparently his Cadillac did once make a tour Down Under, without its owner. Nevertheless this lavish memorial to the King was erected by the local fan club shortly after his death in 1977, and unveiled by Johnny O’Keefe. A stone grotto is crowned with succulents perhaps reminiscent of Memphis Tennessee, and every year on his birthday his mourners come to leave tributes.

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I know The King touched millions of lives but it seems odd to have a shrine to him in a land he never visited. As far as I know there are no other tributes in this cemetery to eminent foreigners – no memorial for JFK or Churchill, no monument for Mandela. (Come to think of it, why isn’t Nellie Melba buried in this cemetery, a singer as globally renowned as Elvis in her day, and Melburnian?)

As you wander deeper into the cemetery you leave behind the more recent, well-tended plots, and before long you arrive at the elevated land on Princes Hill. It’s peaceful up here, with the music of ordinary life providing a faint, reassuring soundtrack: you can hear shouts and whistles from a game of women’s football on the adjacent Princes Park oval, the rattle and squeak of trams, and faint bird song. There’s a view out to the distant Dandenongs. Somewhere a bell is tolling five.

Some of the older headstones tell stories of heart-breaking awfulness:

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Few people come to this section: no one leaves flowers or teddy bears. No world champions or global icons can be found among these graves. You are among the neglected tombs of the forgotten; just broken stone, rusty iron and weeping angels. The words darling wife, loving daughter, cherished father, fell asleep, called home, departed this life, regretted, sadly missed are fading to illegibility on weathered, sometime toppled headstones. Here, more than anywhere, is a sense of the thousands of ordinary people who made the city.

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Map of this walk

Previous walk – The strangeness of Royal Park

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8 comments

      1. I was thinking that the suburbs should get into the game, so maybe, Hawthorn given that Marilyn first foster home was in Hawthorne, Calif.

    1. Thank you Jens, yes the less visited parts are very atmospheric – though actually the whole cemetery was almost empty of visitors the days I was there.

  1. Thanks, Nick – my convict great great g grandmother is buried here with two ex- Tasmanian convict son-in- laws. A bit of Melbourne’s early convict links buried here too?

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